Monday, August 8, 2011

Relax With Straight Razors

            I don’t know a single person that enjoys shaving, outside of prepubescent children. To me, shaving is bi-weekly preventative maintenance. What does it prevent? It prevents me from looking unkempt, disheveled and homeless. Although I had never heard of a hot towel shave, I was excited when my brother-in law, Mike offered to treat me to one. It was the last bit of maintenance on his wedding day. While there were four of us (Mike, his dad, Big Mike, my dad and myself ) that participated in the shave, only two of us (Big Mike and myself) were full participants, as to the fact that the other two were sporting a full beard.
            The place that we went to was called Floyd’s. In my mind, this immediately gave an old-timey feel. I imagined a small, dusty, dirty shop with only three barber chairs. The kind that has a pedal that you pump to raise the chair and a second pedal to release and lower the seated. This metal chair would also have a knob next to the hip of the person sitting down that allows the chair to lay flat.
            I imagined a hunched old man shuffling along as he walked; an octogenarian with hands that trembled slightly until he got down to work, at which point his hands are steady and he works quickly and efficiently. I don’t know if I imagined the man this way because of the traces of the Andy Griffith show still lingering in my memory from the lonely and boring summer afternoons watching syndicated television as a kid. Or it could be that the name Floyd started a rapid and steady decline in popular use beginning in 1927. Regardless, there is a reason that places like the one that I had been imagining don’t exist outside of small towns anymore.
             I must say that I was a bit disappointed when I walked into Floyd’s. With the exception of the red and white barber’s pole outside, it was the antithesis of my imaginary barber’s establishment. This place had vaulted ceilings with opposing murals on opposing walls of musicians of varying styles across eras. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, White Stripes, Flight of the Concords, Joan Jett, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, you name it. They graced the walls above and behind the mirrors in which people watched themselves got excised of hair. These same musicians were pouring from the speakers. A mix of the well-known, the currently popular, and those played on college radio until they become too popular, at which time they are shooed over to popular radio. 
            As people waited, they could sit at a bar and use one of the two available computers to cruise the internet. Several TVs were mounted on the ceiling and playing sports and VH1. Half of the TVs were muted, but their closed captioning was on. Although there was a pool table filling the open space behind the greeter’s station, it appeared that it wasn’t available for anything except storing employees’ tackle boxes filled with scissors, bottles, combs and other tools of the trade during operating hours. It struck me as a place where employees would hang out after they closed. Have a few drinks, listen to music, smoke some cigarettes and debate politics, food and movies alike. This was one of fifty-two Floyd’s locations nationwide, not one that somebody’s grandpa opened up when he returned home from the war. The entire staff was pierced, tattooed, or both. The air was filled with an I’m-cooler-than-you-but-it’s-ok-if-you-want-to-hang-out vibe. I liked the environment, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for with a hot towel shave.
            The exception to the tattoo/piercing rule was Jim, the barber. Now Jim seemed like a clean-cut and straight laced, but not out of place with the other employees. I had no particular reason to think this, but I imagined him as the cool uncle that would come to a family reunion and make fun of your mom with you behind her back.
            When it was time for the shaving sessions to begin, the Mikes had to leave and take care of some more pre-wedding tasks. I was a bit disappointed, as this was the time to get to know Mike a little better and to gather a bit more information for the wedding (which I was officiating). After the Mikes left, I read a paper copy of The Onion while dad was shaved. When he was done, he still had a full beard, albeit more manicured and shaped one. When it was my turn, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t watch him as he was sitting in the chair. I opted to read a printed copy of The Onion and watched one of the TVs as they talked about the NFL Draft, which was hours away from starting.
            Jim clicked on a trimmer and started by evening out my sideburns.
            “Your right one is crooked,” he told me. “That’s because you’re right handed.” He looked at me as if I should be impressed that he could deduce this. I wasn’t. Ninety percent of the world is right-handed, and it takes more than assumptions to impress me.
            “When you shave your right sideburn using your right hand, you pull up at an angle. If you switch it to your left, you can get it straighter.” And there it was. I was impressed. He wasn’t assuming, he really was telling me. It struck me as one of those details that would help Sherlock Holmes solve a case. Jim then trimmed around my ears and eyebrows. I can honestly say that in my whole life, it had never even crossed my mind to trim my eyebrows, despite being able to think of several occasions where I had plucked an unusually long one. I liked this detail; small, efficient.
            Next Jim grabbed a trimmer and clicked it to life with a humming start. He used it around my cheeks and chin. I was starting to wonder if he was going to give me a haircut, which I didn’t need. Then he kicked the feet of the chair up and had me lie back, placing leg extenders under my feet. He walked over to a small metal box and pulled out a steaming towel. It was not unlike the machine that they keep in the ER to keep blankets warm. He put the towel over my entire face carefully folding it under my nose and another over my eyes and forehead, allowing comfortable breathing space. The towel was hotter than I expected, but not uncomfortable. I guess it’s not a warm towel shave. The towel had a faint scent to it, my guess is menthol. I didn’t quite know what to do. My heaviest-relied upon sense was taken away, so I closed my eyes and breathed in the heat.
After several minutes, my whole body was relaxed when he pulled the towel off the lower part of my face. Then he rubbed a cool gel on my face, massaging my cheeks, skin and neck. I was starting to realize this wasn’t really about the shave. A hot towel shave is the male equivalent of a facial. With a straight razor. There are few occasions of pampering that most men afford themselves. This was like a masculine ritual, similar to smoking cigars or a pipe and throwing rocks. As it turns out, hot towel shaves are what the manliest of guys are always doing in westerns and mobster movies when they get shot.
            As Jim massaged my neck, he started to quietly hum. He wrapped my face again, and I could see through a separation of the two towels that he was watching one of the TVs. I couldn’t tell if he was checking out draft details or watching the Real Housewives of Atlanta. I could still hear him humming. I once read that people that hum, whistle and sing to themselves were generally happy. His humming made me think of two things. First, I took this to mean that Jim like his job.
            Secondly, it made me thing about Sweeney Todd. I imagined the lights dimming as Jim stood behind me, sharpening his blade on a strap of leather, preparing to break out in song. I can’t imagine that these thoughts don’t cross a lot of guys’ minds as they sit in the chair, blindfolded, and prepare themselves to have a straight razor pulled across their neck.
            In fact, the barber’s pole is connected with bloodletting in the Middle Ages. After the Pope banned the practice of surgery by the highly educated clergy in 1163, the barber’s role increased among the masses. A growing amount of unskilled and unqualified men started performing surgery, bloodletting, leeching, enemas and tooth extractions. Eventually the functions of barber and surgeon forked and set upon their roles today. In fact, to this day, it is illegal for barber’s to use a straight razor in many states. Generally in those states the allow it, it is still necessary for people to gain a specialized barber’s license. It is only then that a business can have a barber’s pole hanging outside their establishment.
            Once again, Jim pulled the towel off of my face, and started applying something to it; I couldn’t tell if it was a gel or foam, as to the fact that he had already rubbed it into his palms. I asked him the importance of the sharpness of the blade. He then explained that the biggest problem that people have isn’t with the sharpness of the blade, (even a single blade disposable razor is sharp). The real issue is that people don’t properly hydrate and moisturize their face before shaving and their blade then pulls at the hair follicle and irritates the skin, causing pseudofolliculitis barbae, or razor burn.
            The shave itself was short and anticlimactic. Jim quickly swiped across my cheek, occasionally asking me to face this way and that to pull the skin taught in different areas of my neck. Due to the fact that hair grows in various directions throughout the face, he slid the razor across my skin in different spots except for my upper lip. He explained that while the straight razor is longer than other razors, therefore lowering the number of passes along the face, it requires the skin to be taut, making it too difficult to go any direction but down on the upper lip.
            After the shave was over, Jim put a cold towel on my face to close the pores in my skin. I felt as though I had gotten a facial, a shave, meditated and took a nap, only to be awakened with a baby-soft face and a relaxed manner. If you’ve never had a hot towel shave, I say go ahead. Be a man. Try it. But appreciate it, because when you wake up the next day, it will all be gone.

Have any of you guys had a hot towels shave before? Would you? Tell me about it.


  1. You described a old-timey barbershop that I'm sure you've never seen outside of movies or TV. You either got "home cuts" or some salon. Even I'm too young to have seen the barber shop you described. (smile)
    It's a good read. Thanks.

  2. Oh Adam... I'm so jealous, maybe if mother nature keeps playing games with me someday I'll have enough wiskers to get my own hot towel Shave!!!! KATHLEEN... HOPE I MADE YOUR DAY BY READING YOUR BLOG

  3. Like you I can't be bothreed with shaving instead I keep a stubbled look with a grade 1 shave all over (including my head!)If I had a classic hot towel shave I just wouldn't be able to get thoughts of the Demon Barber out of my head. Still I'd give it a go!


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